The Next Level
At first, the girls in Hostel II don’t look as eager to be victims as did the boys in Hostel. That is, their gallivanting across Europe is not structured so overtly as reckless efforts to get laid or drug-addled. This would seem to make them moderately “sympathetic,” or maybe just warranting vague viewer dismay upon their horrific fates in Slovakia.
When the girls find themselves on a train bound for that Eastern European nation, they offer up a history lesson that suggests director Eli Roth is shoring up his cred. The Americans—rich girl Beth (Lauren German), nerdy girl Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and slutty girl Whitney (Bijou Phillips)—are bonding with the vampy girl who’s too obviously assigned to reel them in, Axelle (Vera Jordanova). When Whitney worries they’re headed into a war, she’s reassured, “There hasn’t been war in Slovakia for 50 years.” Right: either these girls are smarter than the boys in Hostel, who believed an ongoing war left the girls desperate for their American penises, or Eli Roth is making sure we all know he’s not so dumb as to think there’s a war in Slovakia. Dude!
The moment underscores what’s most annoying about Hostel II, its smug, self-referential perspective on just about everything. (This moment and another, actually, when the TV in the Slovakian hostel is tuned to Pulp Fiction, so you’ll be sure to remember that Roth and Tarantino are tight like that, in case you missed the maestro’s name splattered all over the Hostel II credits.) The girls may not be the slobbering sex-crazed boys of the first film (and neither are they that film’s surprisingly cool “Last Girl,” the German-speaking, smart-fighting, Hispanic Paxton (Jay Hernandez), but they are variously deserving of punishment. This exactly because they are girls: too strong or too weak, too desirous or too desirable, damn scary for boys.
This much is visible when the movie starts parallel-tracking the girls’ gonnabe torturers, a shift in focus from the first movie, which introduced the customers late and emphasized their multi-national, anti-US backgrounds. This time, the primary clients willing to pay extra to abuse for young yanks are American themselves, looking to prove their masculinity and get retribution for cold “bitches” they know back home. Arrogant Todd (Richard Burgi) learns his electronic bid for the girls has been accepted while golfing with a couple of Japanese clients, whooping at the good news. Still, he’s a standard-issue wussy boy, bringing along his whiny buddy Stuart (Roger Bart)—they’re veterans of sexual adventuring, muttering about the gonorrhea they picked up in Thailand—in order to show quien es mas macho. “People are going to fucking fear you,” exults Todd. “What we do today is going to pay off every day for the rest of our fucking lives,” because, of course, torture makes you self-confident.
While such dunderheaded posturing is surely tedious, the film’s use of it to set up Todd for dire consequence is even more so. “Dude,” he explains, “You look at places in the world where there’s no law, whether it’s fucking Chad or New Orleans, this is what they do.” It goes without saying that Todd’s reading of “the world” is ugly and reductive, a projection of his own banal pathologies. At the same time, Todd and Stuart, each squirmy and narcissistic in his own way, embody the film’s decidedly critique of US boy posturing, here punishable by very bloody castration (see also: Roth’s self-ironic version of similar posturing in New York magazine).
This isn’t to say the movie’s visual design is without poetry, or that its exploitation is without context. In fact, Hostel II occasionally offers up seriously pretty imagery: the shot of Todd and Stuart’s walk through the “art gallery” pulls out to show stunning devastation, the backdrop for privilege pursuing its most insidious pleasures. Beth runs up against her own stylish backdrop when she is suddenly alone at the upscale spa posing as her hostel (when Beth’s father threatened to book her a room, she refuses—“No college students stay at the Four Seasons!”—then apparently loses her cell phone, as she doesn’t use it again despite many instances where it would seem exceptionally useful). As Beth wanders through the changing area near the hostel’s pool, she looks lovely and pale, surrounded by architecture that is starkly gorgeous, all harsh angles and severe shadows.
Suddenly surrounded by men in black turtlenecks and caps, Beth discovers the hostel is surrounded by barbed wire, and stumbles into a spooky woods where she’s assaulted by the same band of grimy urchins whose help Paxton enlisted in the first film. Here the film plays a kind of game, where Beth is “saved” and carted away by the real monsters, while you remain behind and watch one of these rich folks—Sasha (Milan Knazko), who runs the torture club, Elite Hunting—threaten the kids (who are again led by little Patrik Zigo) for something like fun, forcing them to select a member of their group for sacrifice, whom he proceeds to shoot in the head. The comparison of his flat affect with the maniacal glee, heavy breathing, and gooshy rapture of his clients makes Sasha look even worse, an abject psychopath who kills because he can.
The film has attracted minor attention for such depiction, as if the gory stuff is okay but the shooting of a child, even off-screen, is off limits (and should not be depicted just because “you can”). While Hostel II is not exactly pushing boundaries of political expression, it does question the limits of what counts as offensive. In this excavation, it’s picking up on Hostel‘s own fortuitous history, that is, its release in 2005 at around the same time that the Abu Ghraib photos became public. While this coincidence, and the film’s own plot and grisly imagery, earned it the label “torture porn” (alongside the considerably less clever Saw franchise), it has also led to more questions concerning art and its many contexts. In spots, the sequel is less explicit, even less harrowing, than the first film, though it’s unclear whether this augers increasing maturity, subtlety, or something like sophistication. Taking advantage of the Abu Ghraib connection, acknowledging the topical urgency of torture as content, the sequel includes a shot of dogs attacking Whitney inside the gallery, as she cowers, looking just like one of the victims of US abuse.
While such allusion doesn’t exactly build to an analysis, at least it acknowledges a context beyond itself. Less satisfying is the film’s insistence on the parameters of pleasure, specifically, the male parameters. Though it includes a female Elite Hunting client, Mrs. Bathory (Monika Malacova), her ritualistic desires are tediously ejaculatory: she lies beneath her victim, chained from the ceiling, then cuts her throat. As the blood spews over Mrs. Bathory, her ecstasy is standard-het-porn as can be: she/the movie can’t imagine her pleasure outside such constraints, and neither can the eventual Last Girl, whose vengeance is almost startlingly unsurprising. It’s this lack of imagination, rather than the film’s mighty efforts at gross-out imagery and indictments of bad men, that leaves it wanting.